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Review: 'The Secret Life of Hubie Hartzel' at The Growing Stage in Netcong

Delightful new children's play opened this week at The Growing Stage, in Netcong, New Jersey. "The Secret Life of Hubie Hartzel" is the first world premiere in the company’s history and is directed of Steve Fredericks, The Growing Stage’s founder and Executive Director.

The Secret Life of Hubie Hartzel poster
The Secret Life of Hubie Hartzel poster
The Growing Stage

The play was created by children's writer Susan Rowan Masters, first as a short book and later as a 28 minute radio play about bullying in school. Her adaptation for the stage, now expanded to about 75 minutes, was included in The Growing Stage's 2013 New Play Reading Festival, and it won.

The play nicely covers the perils of an over-weight fifth grader: disinterest in school, particularly the stress of homework, an antagonistic older sister, a beloved cat who is dying, and a plan to deal with the class bully. In the end, Hubie finds the courage to stand up to the bully and "do the right thing."

Now in the creative hands of director Fredericks, the play has received remarkable staging, via an attractive, inventive set with excellent assist from video projection… supporting a very talented cast that includes six professional equity actors. Leading the group as Hubie Hartzel is, a Growing Stage regular, Danny Campos. His comedic talent, that we first applauded in his Oliver Hardy turn in 2012, is a major contributor to the success of this production.

Playing in Hubie's world are: Lori B. Lawrence and Jason Scott Quinn as his concerned parents. They nicely double as, Mrs. Bunce, the school teacher, and Fred Ferkle, Hubie's beloved cat who is dying, respectively; Hubie’s sister Brenda played with spirit by Nikole Rizzo, last seen in Pinkalicious the Musical. PJ Schweizer, another Growing Stage talented regular, Hermey in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, plays Hubie’s Best Friend, Frank; Josh Carpenter, plays Hubie's bully Ralph Marruci. He ridicules not only Hubie’s weight, but even his name Hubert. The widely experienced actress, Jerielle Morwitz is perfect in the key role of the attractive Lana Slomonsky, the art teacher who enthusiastically encourages Hubert's interest in art.

Rounding out the cast as Hubie's classmates are Natalie Pavelek as Beth Pringle and Jillian Petrie as Shelly Hoff. Both young ladies are obviously talented performers with wide experience, but the play, in its current form, provides little for them to do.

A special contributor to the enjoyment of "The Secret Life of Hubie Hartzel" is Emily Cara Portune (Peter Pan). Portune choreographed the joyous dance sequence in the second act.

There is much to enjoy in this little play that carries an important and timely message about bullying. Parents and grandparents with middle school age children (and teachers too!) should particularly find "The Secret Life of Hubie Hartzel" a rewarding experience. As with all the productions at The Growing Stage, this is a wonderful way to introduce youngsters to the magic world of live theater...hopefully creating lifetime supporters of live theater.

A special note about the theater itself...the interior is adorned with fairy tale themed artwork making it a very special place. See the sideshow.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio Feb. 8, 2014

The Children’s Theatre of New Jersey, located in the "Historic Palace Theatre" on Route 183 in Netcong, New Jersey,is presenting "The Secret Life of Hubie Hartzel" through March 2nd with performances Friday evenings at 7:30 PM, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 4:00 PM.

Also note that the GST is presenting on February 16th, 21st and March 2nd post-show talkback sessions with the cast and director. The Growing Stage continues FUN-tastic Fridays with all tickets $15! Saturday and Sunday tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for children and seniors. To place your reservation, please contact the Growing Stage Box Office at (973) 347-4946 or e-mail at boxoffice@growingstage.com. Group rates and Birthday Party packages are available.